We Built this City at the Gardiner - Reflections

How can we use art and play to design our cities?

Play, as with the creation of visual art, is all about exploration. In city spaces, play can bring people together and foster social interaction, through playgrounds, public art projects and festivals. Play in the urban planning process is just as important. It can bring us back to a childlike frame of mind that embraces and prioritizes creativity and discovery, allowing us to contemplate different ways of seeing that are not typically considered as ‘practical solutions’ to our cities’ problems. We Built This City was a playful way to engage diverse communities in animating, changing and improving our everyday experiences. Over a period of two weeks, we took over the Gardiner Museum’s Community Art Space as part of the Make it Real project to work collaboratively with participants to create a scale version of the neighbourhood, build forts, and engage in walkshops, as a way to reimagine our public spaces. The project coincided with the City of Toronto Planning Division’s TOcore initiative, a study that looks at using growth in Toronto’s Downtown to make the city a great place to live, work, learn, play and invest.

The project had various collaborative components:

1. An expansive clay city maquette: This acted as a reimagining and reconstruction of the surrounding environment of the museum, which was guided by both practical needs and fantastical ideas.

Some features built by members of the public were a community garden and plant share, an interactive natural playground, a more activated waterfront area and other public spaces for performances and community gatherings.

2. HOW TO BUILD A BLANKET FORT was a workshop that invited participants to work together to transform the space into an epic version of a quintessential childhood space. These temporary childlike forts were built on a gigantic-scale using blankets, bamboo, tennis balls and other household materials. This created a playful and whimsical space to engage in dialogue and creation, in which the convergences of arts based inquiry and city building can be discussed and realized.

At this workshop members of the public worked together to prototype and problem solve, creating spaces based on shared priorities and visions. This also provided communal spaces throughout the two weeks.

As the structure was much used and explored, the structures needed to be redesigned and expanded over the run of the project. We found this mirrored how no city is static, and should keep evolving to best fit the needs of the community.

3. Walkshops - Throughout the project, we facilitated ‘walkshops’ in collaboration with community leaders (including artists, planners and other community activists) *read about them here. They were all designed to be interactive and playful walking tours of the surrounding neighbourhood, aimed to foster artistic thinking and learning about our city spaces.  The walkshops each took on on different educational or creative form including playful scavenger hunts or sensory tours, both fictional and factual tours, collaborative storytelling, interactive mapping, and audio recording and mixing.

The walkshops got people out of the gallery and into the neighbourhood to explore our city and learn about it in new ways. This allowed participants the permission to step back and take note of the aspects of the city that are usually overlooked in our daily lives.

4. We also partnered with Maximum City, a summer program for young city builders between the ages of 10 and 17. This collaboration permitted us a focused platform to engage young people in thinking about the process of design and how arts based research can be used in the city.

5. The closing event and panel discussion, ‘EXPLORATIONS IN THE CITY - WHERE PLAY MEETS ART, EDUCATION AND DESIGN’, focused on the role that exploration has in city building and asked panelists form a diversity of perspectives to consider how incorporating art and play into the urban design and the planning process can change/shape our cities.

The discussion about art, play and exploration brought us into a conversation about decision making —  which incorporated themes of gender equity and affordable housing for example.

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